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August 24th, 2007

CFR stimulates the use of GIS in Panamanian research
By Pierre Racine

Casa 5 at Ciudad del Saber

One of the activities organised by the Panama Consortium  this year was to give an introductory course to ArcGIS, right there, in Panama City. Catherine Potvin and Damase Khasa requested my services to give the course. Everything was confirmed in February; I was to give the course in June. Five days of teaching…in Spanish, of course!!!

Pedro Miguel Gascón Vera,
director of the Gaia Association,
was one of the thirty students

The mission of the Panama Consortium is to stimulate the potential for research in Panama through courses, conferences, exchanges with researchers from Canada, etc… Among the thirty people who were registered in the course, there were Panamanian students (mainly from the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá - UTP ), Canadian students doing their research work in Panama through the Neo  program, STRI  or the Consortium, university professors (two from the Universidad de Panamá , one from UTP, and Catherine herself), researchers from the Panamanian government (three from COPEG , three from SOMASPA, one from SENACYT  and one from ICGES ), one person from the Gaia Association , and one Indian woman from the Kuna community.

After many weeks of preparation and a few hours of Spanish instruction, I arrived in Panama City on June 19th. I had three days to make sure that ArcGIS would work properly on the 16 machines that were located in the classroom. I was already dripping with sweat by 7:30 AM when Margarita Pearce, activities coordinator for the Consortium in Panama City, came to get me at the house rented by the Consortium in the Ciudad del Saber , better known under the name “Casa 5”. Panama is a very tropical country!

CIHH’s people at UTP’s canteen

We went to visit the UTP’s Centro de Investigaciones Hidráulicas e Hidrotécnicas  (CIHH), led by engineer Erick Vallester , who was to host us in their premises for the duration of the course. Margarita was driving. We had to cross the whole city, from west to east and pass through the centre, in order to get to UTP, which was located 20 kilometres away. It was in my interest to properly memorise the directions because I was to drive it by myself the next day, using the Consortium’s Toyota…

The first surprise for me when we arrived: There was no classroom with computers! We then had to requisition computers from students, from researchers and…from secretaries so we could give the course. Second surprise, this time for people from CIHH: to get the ArcGIS licence to work, we needed every computer to form a network! They knew that they had to get the computers into a room, but not that they had to be connected together. They consequently hired a private company of computer technicians to setup everything. The room had to be ready for the next Monday. It was now Wednesday…

Omar Lopez Alfano, who now replaces Catherine
as the head of the Panama Consortium, and
Marie-Carmen Ruiz, a student in the Neo program,
who were both attending the course

People from CIHH, especially Jose, Eny and Alexander, worked wonderfully, and by Friday at 5 PM, everything was functioning perfectly. I could thus sleep in peace through the weekend and enjoy visiting a bit of the country. On Saturday, I went to the metropolitan park, which is a big chunk of virgin forest in the middle of downtown Panama City, and on Sunday, to the Altos de Campana National Park with some students from the Neo program.

The week went perfectly. The theoretic part of the course (one day and a half) was composed of Power Point slides, which had been translated into Spanish (thanks Miren!). Virtually all my text was in it, so there was not too much trouble with the Spanish. It was mostly during the practical part (three days and a half) that I had to work very hard to make myself understood. I realised that Panamanians speak a

All of the students

very rapid type of Spanish that we could compare to the French spoken in Lac St. Jean (where I’m from)! It was also not so easy to teach people with very different backgrounds in ArcGIS and very different backgrounds with computers! We ended the week with a meal at “Jimmy,” one of the best restaurants in Panama City.

People really appreciated a course that specifically addressed researchers’ needs. This kind of technical training, which is oriented toward scientific research, is much in demand in countries where university research is still in its infancy. This was a nice opportunity for the CEF to honour a part of its mission, which is to participate in international research activities.

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